Genomics research takes hit in Minnesota

State-wide budget cuts mean less funding for Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics

Amy Swinderman
ST. PAUL, Minn.—Seeking to stave off an historic state budget deficit, Minnesota legislators recently passed a budget bill that includes substantial cuts to the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, a collaborative venture between the state, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

The legislation, signed into law April 1 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, reduces spending in Minnesota's current two-year budget period by $312 million in an effort to solve a projected $1 billion deficit that state officials attribute to the national recession.

The cuts affect local governments, public colleges and farm programs, and notably, have resulted in an annual loss of $427,000 for the partnership, which receives $8 million in state funding per year. That's on top of another $427,000 in this budget cycle.

According to Dr. Eric D. Wieben, a professor at the Mayo Clinic and a project leader for the partnership, the funding cut will likely mean one less funded project per year. The funding is used to produce scientific advances to identify and develop improvements in healthcare and provide stimulus for new jobs and an expanded tax base in Minnesota. The partnership's current research teams are investigating Alzheimer's disease, prostate cancer, heart disease and obesity, which according to the partnership, confront tens of thousands of Minnesotans.

"The average budget for a partnership-funded project is in the area of $1 million, so this means we will be able to fund one less project in the next two-year cycle," Wieben explains. "One high-value project won't get funded unless we find additional dollars, which is very difficult to do in the current economic climate."

Although Wieben says he is disappointed in the cuts, he stresses that the state has always been supportive of the partnership despite its economic difficulties.

"The state is facing a huge budget shortfall," he says, "but it's been very generous in helping establishing the partnership and keeping us going. Since 2003, the state has appropriated almost $90 million in support of the partnership. That is a fairly substantial figure and a fairly big vote of confidence showing the legislature's support of funding research. We appreciate their continued support and hope that we can continue to be a high funding priority in the future."

But that support is not enough, argues one legislator, Rep. Kim Norton, D-Rochester. Norton, who previously served on the state legislature's Biosciences and Emerging Technology Committee, had negotiated on the House side to get language into the bill that would prevent further cuts. But that language was stripped from the final bill, opening the door to the possibility of more cuts in the future.

The budget bill brings the state's budget problem below $700 million over the next 14 months. With Minnesota expecting $400 million or more in federal aid, state legislators will still have a small gap to confront before the adjourning for the session on May 17.

"The state of Minnesota has said it is committed to exploring bioscience, so we have a laser-like focus on it in the House, and we're trying to keep that focus," Norton says.

It wasn't the first time state lawmakers went to bat for scientific research in Minnesota. Last year, faced with what was believed at the time to be a $4 to $6 billion state budget deficit, lawmakers attempted to pass a bill to balance the state budget. However, after federal stimulus money and other reforms brought that figure down slightly, Pawlenty vetoed the measure, and instead used unallotment to make nearly $3 billion in cuts on his own. That action is currently the subject of a lawsuit that questions whether the governor exceeded his congressional authority.

Norton says she actually sees Minnesota's continued support of the partnership as a way out of its budget crisis, as the partnership has made considerable progress in its goal of making a positive economic impact on the state. To date, the partnership has submitted six papers for publication in prestigious medical journals; received equipment grants from the VA Medical Center Research Services and the Minnesota Medical Foundation; submitted two federal grant applications, including a competitive renewal of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, and a National Science Foundation grant; and filed one patent application. Additionally, a partnership team is preparing to submit an application for an NIH Program Project Grant titled "Physical activity and obesity: From molecule to community."

According to an economic quantification study of the partnership's potential, a state investment of $70 million over five years, with mid-range assumptions, would yield an expected overall economic impact returned to the state of $320 million and 4,300 direct and indirect jobs in 2010.

"The investment we have made in the partnership is significant for a state our size, but it's small when you compare it to investments in other states that are committed to scientific research," Norton says. "Initially, we want there to be new research and new discoveries made, but we also want to be able to take these discoveries to the marketplace so we can have a positive economic impact on the state. If we can find new cures, drugs and devices, from a legislative standpoint, we'll continue to invest in those parties if they have a positive economic impact. But we can't just say we want to be a center of bioscience. We have to stick to it."


Amy Swinderman

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